Editor's note: This article was originally published in December, 2014. The William Penn boys' basketball team went on to win the District 3 Class AAAA championship, the first of consecutive titles for the Bearcats. Control of the York City School District was not turned over to a charter. Later, Troy Sowers stepped down as William Penn boys' basketball coach on Feb. 18, 2016.
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Two days passed since William Penn played state-ranked Chester, and boys' basketball coach Troy Sowers doesn't bring it up.
He gathers 10 boys at one side of the gym. He speaks of family, unity and sacrifice.
"All of you are used to starting," Sowers said, before singling out each of them, one-by-one, and breaking down strategy for their next game.
The gym is quiet, except for JV coach Clovis Gallon working with his team on the other end of the court. Sowers' players listen to him intently. Their deference to him and to the program spring from varying roots: because Sowers often drove one to summer school, or he took another to a college visit or two. Junior guard Trey Shifflett said Sowers' success also plays a part — two District 3 championships, a state final appearance and a 193-53 record through Tuesday, as he embarks on his ninth season.
This is no small feat, said athletic director Joe Chiodi, a retired teacher who took on his current role because of 2012 budget cuts to the district. Those slashes have since stripped most of the high school sports programs at William Penn, leaving basketball as one of the few left.
The 2 1/2 hour practice inside William Penn Senior High School serves as a distraction from what's going on outside their gym. York City Schools' fate could be decided Friday in a court battle that will determine whether it is turned over to a charter operation next year.
If that happens, Sowers and Gallon fear it will mark the end on multiple fronts. Both are high school teachers with opinions on the subject as fiery as a response to a referee's call.
"All my juniors," Sowers said, "they ask what's happening next year. No other school has to deal with that."
On the basketball court, they also balance lofty expectations.
Last weekend's loss to Chester, a 49-48 defeat that came down to the final seconds, left Sowers and his players dissatisfied. Despite pushing one of the most decorated programs in Pennsylvania (a record eight PIAA titles), the coach brushed off any hints of a moral victory. He hopes to contend for William Penn's first state title, a feat Sowers' squad nearly accomplished in his third season. Before then, the journey seemed like its own uphill climb.
A 1987 graduate of the high school, Sowers began teaching in York right after college. His basketball coaching career soon followed, but with a myriad of stops: York County Tech's boys, Spring Grove's girls, Spring Grove's boys and finally three years with West York's girls.
"It never really felt like where I belonged," said Sowers, who twice unsuccessfully applied for the William Penn job but added, "those first two times weren't meant to be."
The third time came in April 2006. Sowers' teaching position at William Penn gave him an inside track, and he was hired quickly following the resignation of Isiah Anderson in his second stint as coach. Anderson had guided the Bearcats to school records: 27 straight wins and 28 total the first time, plus a 2004 run to the state semifinals in his second time in the job.
"The last year Isiah was here, in my opinion," Chiodi said, "the program was in good shape."
However, Sowers' hiring marked William Penn's seventh coaching change in 11 years. He also entered his "dream job" with a career record of just 76-149. Gallon looked back on that first season and acknowledged the players had an issue of trust. Gallon knew some of them, having coached the junior high team. He also expected to join Anderson's staff following the 2005-06 season.
They came together through a connection to two current West York students. Sowers' son, Noah, and Gallon's younger brother, Josh Bailey, grew up playing basketball and soccer together. While watching the boys play in those youth games, Josh's father Jeff Bailey approached Troy Sowers and suggested Clovis Gallon.
Like Sowers, Gallon dreamt of coaching at William Penn. The two graduated about six years apart, so Sowers said he knew of Gallon but didn't really know him before filling out a staff.
"I think you guys would work well together," Sowers recalled Jeff Bailey telling him.
His prediction proved to be correct.
After a 12-13 first season, the Bearcats just missed qualifying for the PIAA tournament the next year.
"That whole first season was a battle of establishing what we wanted in the York High basketball program," Sowers said. "It's nice to have Clovis because we take on battles together."
They steered the program to a record-breaking run in Year 3.
Twenty-eight straight wins opened the season, all the way until a district final setback vs. Central Dauphin East. Their only other loss came in the state championship game. Many of the components from that run — Malik Generett, a Division I college football prospect, and Malachi Leonard, currently playing basketball in Italy — were seasoned into varsity basketball with those first two seasons.
Sowers is convinced the PIAA finals run set the tone for his program's success today.
"Growing up, coming to nearly every game until I started playing, I learned one thing about this program," Shifflett said. "It was win, win win."
Shifflett made the varsity team as a freshman, coming off the bench during a league-title run. Sowers then made him a captain last season, citing a lead-by-example quality. Now, two days after the loss to Chester, the coach puts it to the test, telling Shifflett he will come off the bench for their next game. Shifflett nods, and drills begin.
A year ago, Sowers made a similar request of starting point guard Stephen Dickson. In turn, the Bearcats won 14 of their next 15 on the way to a second district title under the coach who has their trust.